It was lost in the endless drama of the debt-ceiling negotiations, but last week, the Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives launched an unprecedented attack on the U.S.'s environmental protections. GOP Representatives added rider after rider to the 2012 spending bill for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department, tacking on amendments that would essentially prevent those agencies charged with protecting America's air, water and wildlife from doing their jobs.
Last week's riderfest wasn't unusual for the 112th U.S. Congress. Representatives Henry Waxman and Edward Markey two senior Democrats with solid green credentials recently charted all the votes taken so far this year and calculated that the Republican-led House has voted to "stop," "block" or "undermine" efforts to protect the environment 110 times since January. As Natural Resources Defense Council president Frances Beinecke wrote recently, this body of lawmakers stands an excellent chance of becoming "the most anti-environment House of Representatives" in U.S. history.
To which you might react: Well, duh. In recent years the Republican Party has defined itself as staunchly anti-EPA and generally antienvironmental protection. Whether that means opposing legislation to curb climate change or new rules to promote energy-efficient lightbulbs, if it can be considered green, then the majority of the GOP is almost always against it. That antigreen ideology has only been stiffened by the rise of the Tea Party, and Republican presidential candidates on the campaign trail are fighting to see who can come across as more hostile to environmental regulations.
So Newt Gingrich who once wrote a book called A Contract with the Earth, all the way back in 2007 and Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann have both called for abolishing the EPA, while Mitt Romney has come under intense criticism from the likes of Rush Limbaugh for daring to admit that man-made climate change might just actually exist. Sarah Palin summed up the prevailing GOP attitude when she had this to say while attending a motorcycle rally at the start of her recent cross-country bus tour: "I love the smell of emissions."
But it hasn't always been this way. The surprising truth is that the extreme political polarization of environmental and energy issues is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. There have long been prominent conservatives who proudly called themselves conservationists back in the days when Republicans for Environmental Protection an actual political group, founded in 1995 wasn't an oxymoron. Theodore Roosevelt who has a strong claim as the greenest President in U.S. history helped create major national parks and launched the U.S. Forest Service. Richard Nixon created the EPA and signed the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. George H.W. Bush signed the landmark 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act and supported a cap-and-trade program that successfully fought acid rain. Even George W. Bush, a product of the Texas oil patch, created the world's largest marine protected area when he established the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument off Hawaii.
Of course, the hard-core Republican Party of today doesn't resemble Roosevelt's or the elder Bush's. Among the 40 riders the knee-jerk antienvironmentalists of the House GOP produced last week:
A rider that would prevent the EPA from issuing any regulations on greenhouse-gas emissions over the next year despite the fact that the Supreme Court has ruled the agency has the responsibility to regulate those emissions as a public-health threat under the Clean Air Act.
A rider that would stop the EPA from carrying out tough new automobile-fuel-efficiency standards that were announced last week standards that have the support of all the major automakers.
A rider that would prevent the EPA from labeling the toxic ash left over from coal combustion as hazardous waste something that would no doubt alarm the people of Kingston, Tenn., buried by a coal-ash spill in 2008.
The good news for environmentalists is that with the Democrats still in charge of the Senate, those riders are unlikely to remain in the final EPA-Interior spending bill. Indeed, these demands were less about actual policy than about making a political point.
And that's exactly the problem. According to Markey and Waxman's rundown of 110 antienvironment votes made by the House so far this year, on average, 97% of Republican members voted for the antigreen positions, while 84% of Democrats supported the progreen position. As long as that massive chasm exists and as long as Republicans view anything green as an ideological threat we have no chance of crafting meaningful political action on long-term challenges like climate change or energy.
I don't expect Republicans to suddenly embrace the EPA in all its wonderfulness especially with a Democrat in the White House. If you're a conservative, it's natural that you might be concerned first about the effect that environmental regulations would have on business or personal freedom. But that doesn't mean the market always has to trump nature.
That's the message that former Utah governor and current Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman stressed when he recently addressed the Republicans for Environmental Protection. (Yeah, those guys.) "We will be judged by how well we were stewards of those [natural] resources," Huntsman said. "Conservation is conservative. I'm not ashamed to be a conservationist."
Unfortunately, Huntsman's current poll numbers are so small, they need to be read with a magnifying glass, though that probably has more to do with his low public profile than his moderate environmental views. But Huntsman is almost right. Conservation used to be conservative and it must be again.